A stroll down the yogurt aisle of any grocery store will tell you that probiotics are good for the human digestive system and can promote a healthy gut. But did you know that they can also help make better wine? In Spain’s remote Priorat region, 80 miles southwest of Barcelona, a winery called Morlanda is using probiotics to grow stronger, healthier grape vines.
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While Priorat’s gnarly old vines produce some of Spain’s most revered wines — intense and powerful reds made from Garnacha (Grenache) and Cariñena (Carignane) grapes — that wasn’t always the case. The area’s vineyards suffered years of neglect during the reign of Fascist dictator Francisco Franco, until after his death in 1975. Priorat was nearly forgotten as a wine region until the late 1980s, when a visionary band of vintners dedicated themselves to revitalizing it.
The region has made a remarkable turnaround in the last 15 years, but even so, Priorat’s mountainous terrain presents significant challenges to both grape vines and vineyard workers.
“The tortuous geography of this area means that the vineyards have to be cultivated on slopes so steep that it is necessary, in some cases, to build terraces,” said Judit Llop, Morlanda’s winemaker and vineyard manager since 2003. “Some of these terraces are so narrow that two rows of vines barely fit and mechanical access is impossible.”
What’s more, due to the rocky soil and hot, dry climate, “The vines are weak and consequently result in rather poor harvests, with very low grape yields,” she added.
Years of chemical treatments have further weakened the soil, leading Llop to seek out new ways to bring it back to life. “Our vineyard philosophy starts with the health of the soil, and for this reason we started to investigate how we could regenerate it,” she said. “We wanted to increase soil biodiversity and encourage microbial activity.”
In 2013, with the resources of Morlanda’s parent company, the Freixenet Group, behind her, Llop began a probiotics trial with the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in nearby Tarragona, designed to improve the soil and boost the plants’ immune systems. Sprayed onto the vineyard floor and plants, the probiotics make it easier for the vines to assimilate micronutrients.
The process is done in four stages.
“Treatment of the soil in the fall is very important and is known as ‘vaccination,'” she said. “The positive microorganisms, resistant to low temperatures, will mineralize the organic waste — leaves, dry grass and branches — and prepare the soil with the micro and macro elements necessary for plant vegetation.”
Probiotics are applied again before flowering, this time to the plants themselves. “This period is the hardest in their development,” Llop said. “Vines make a huge effort to vegetate while they are maximizing exposure to attacks by diseases. Therefore, during this time, positive microflora is given to the plant for protection and to prevent the development of parasitic and harmful microflora.”
The third treatment happens after bloom, when grape clusters are formed, and the fourth is done during the grapes’ ripening phase.
While the process isn’t cheap, as a huge amount of expensive probiotics must be applied during the first three years of treatment, Llop said the results thus far have been impressive. “After applying probiotics, the vineyard root systems have developed much better,” she explained. “The grapes produce significantly greater amounts of fiber, and that allows more intensive utilization of nutrients. Strengthening the natural immunity of the vines, they become more resistant to low temperatures, pathogens and various kinds of pests.”
Llop said she’s definitely noticed a difference in the vineyards that have not been treated. “They need more soil additions, such as sulfur and copper, in the ones where we are not using probiotics.”
Along with producing traditional wines, such as the Vi de Guarda Morlanda — a powerfully beautiful blend of Garnacha and Cariñena — Llop is experimenting with a natural wine made from probiotic Garnacha grapes and fermented in clay amphorae.
If Llop’s vineyard trials prove successful in the long term, and the use of probiotics is adopted by other wineries in the region, Priorat’s already-acclaimed wines stand to reach even greater heights in the years to come.
Main photo: Morlanda winemaker and vineyard manager Judit Llop is using probiotics to strengthen the winery’s vines. Credit: Copyright 2016 Vinas del Monstant